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Sonoma Coast lifeguards may get a tower at Goat Rock Beach

Stopping at a turnout overlooking Goat Rock Beach near Jenner on Friday, state lifeguards Ryan Wilson and Blake Nogleberg spotted five kids up to their knees in the surf, waves knocking them off their feet.

The risky activity, at what is billed as one of the most dangerous beaches in California, prompted immediate concerns for the lifeguards. But their response to the perceived threat was delayed by distance and logistics.

Wilson, 24, hopped out of the park ranger’s truck to let some air out of the tires to increase traction. He and Nogleberg, 20, then drove to the opposite end of the north parking lot at Goat Rock and onto the sand, where they made a U-turn and headed back to where the kids continued playing in the powerful surf.

Roving patrols are standard for lifeguards at Sonoma Coast State Park, in part because of staffing levels and the need to cover 30 miles of coastline. But those safety efforts, which have led to hundreds of ocean rescues over the years, may soon get a boost at Goat Rock. Officials are considering a proposal to install in a new lifeguard tower at the popular site - likely a first for any beach within the Sonoma Coast park.

“Having a tower right here is going to make it so much easier to respond to someone who doesn’t realize how ?dangerous Goat Rock is,” Wilson said. “If I’m two miles down the road, it could be a matter of life and death.”

Lifeguard towers are standard structures at most beaches along California’s central and southern coasts, where millions of visitors flock to take in summer sun and play in warmer, gentler water.

The North Coast is a different place altogether, and Goat Rock, reached easily from a large parking lot and access road off Highway 1, is one of its deadliest beaches.

Three people drowned in the ocean off Sonoma Coast State Park in 2016, including a 75-year-old Cotati woman who had gone to Goat Rock to memorialize her son. The woman was standing at the edge of the surf and had thrown flowers into the water when several large waves knocked her off balance and swept her out to sea.

Another 61 people were rescued in 2016. Lifeguards made 16,000 safety contacts over that same period to warn beach-goers of the surf’s dangers.

Goat Rock Beach, which is at the mouth of the Russian River, is one of the busiest along the coast, attracting a high number of day-use visitors. It is one of the most dangerous beaches on the coast because of a steep face and underwater trough that makes wave breaks more pronounced.

Tim Murphy, State Parks’ supervising lifeguard on the coast, said people who get caught up in the waves at Goat Rock can be pushed down and “recycled,” a life-threatening situation lifeguards refer to as the “washing machine effect.”

Such dangers are not readily apparent to many beach-goers, especially on a day like Friday when the coast was bathed in warm sunshine. The Hatch and Reed families of Utah were among many taking advantage of the conditions. While the adults staked out spots on the beach, the five kids headed for the water, happily unaware of the risks.

After pulling up in their truck, Wilson and Nogleberg grabbed fins and flotation devices and walked toward the kids. They waved the group out of the water and advised them of the surf’s dangers. The lifeguards then spent some time with the kids’ parents going over the same information.

The adults said they appreciated the warning.

“Maybe you don’t realize the dangers of the waves. Even though we are standing right there, they (the kids) can be taken down pretty easily,” said Bruce Hatch, who is participating in today’s Ironman Santa Rosa triathlon.

State Parks officials say a tower at Goat Rock would provide a place for lifeguards to dedicate several hours to watching beach activities.

The envisioned structure would be made of fiberglass and be perched 6 to 10 feet above the sand. The structure would not be a permanent fixture but could be moved depending on need.

State Parks is working on the project with two non-profits - the Russian River Watershed Protection Committee and Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods. Representatives of the groups met Friday along with several members of the Jenner community at State Parks’ district headquarters in Duncans Mills.

Under the current plan, the Russian River protection group would pay for the tower using funds obtained in a 2012 legal settlement with the Sonoma County Water Agency over the agency’s work in the Jenner estuary. The Stewards group would oversee the purchase.

About $23,000 of the $40,000 settlement amount is available, according to Brenda Adelman, the Russian River group’s chairwoman. That amount could potentially cover the entire cost of the tower.

Other settlement proceeds have been spent on trail restoration, signs and other projects along the Sonoma Coast.

Adelman said more community discussion is needed before her committee votes on the tower proposal, which has drawn some community concern over its potential to detract from the beach’s natural beauty.

But Adelman expressed support for the tower. And she sought to assuage fears by saying Friday the tower is not the first step “in some big goal to commercialize the Sonoma Coast.”

“I want to be clear, this is a single project to put good use to some funds we acquired,” she said. “We feel it will help to save lives of tourists and people who use the coast.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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